Kiva Han lovers should sip away their sadness at other independent coffee shops

By Kira Scammell

After 15 years of serving cuppas, indie coffee shop Kiva Han permanently closed its doors on… After 15 years of serving cuppas, indie coffee shop Kiva Han permanently closed its doors on Jan. 19, leaving Oakland with only big-name corporations serving up its morning joe.

Between the Starbucks on Forbes Avenue and the Starbucks on Craig Street, there is Caribou Coffee, Dunkin’ Donuts, Einstein Bros. Bagels and 7-Eleven. The only independently owned coffee chain in the area is Crazy Mocha, but the Oakland location isn’t open on weekends.

Major corporations such as Starbucks introduced the world to specialty coffee when the business started booming in the mid 1990s. Words like “cappuccino” and “latte” soon became elements of everyday vocabulary. But as those corporations have grow larger, the focus has inevitably shifted from the customers and the coffee to something standardized and economic. Representatives of Starbucks did not wish to comment.

Though they might require a trip out of Oakland, independent coffee shops are still working to serve up cups to please Pittsburgh’s palate.

Coffee Tree Roasters

Coffee Tree, one of Pittsburgh’s leading independent coffee chains and roasters, focuses on finding the best quality coffee available.

“Our search has really been to get the best on the market that we can buy. Really only 10 percent of coffee in the world is specialty,” said chain founder Bill Swoope.

With only five locations, Coffee Tree has the ability to be picky about its beans.

“The big companies can’t play with what we play with. Say they need 5,000 bags, and we can get away with only having 100 bags. We can get great coffee that is only grown as a very small crop, and it’s enough,” Swoope said. For Coffee Tree, it has always been about quality over quantity, he said.

Zeke’s Coffee

This small-batch roaster shop is tucked into blooming East Liberty. Chris Rhodes opened up shop on his own in May 2011.

“I roast by the pound in a fluid-bed coffee roaster. That kind of coffee roaster keeps the temperature consistent. The beans are always moving, or fluid, so they all get roasted evenly,” said Rhodes. “Because the beans are roasted in small batches and ground immediately before brewing, the customer always receives the freshest-tasting coffee.”

Rhodes’ focus goes beyong fresh coffee; he also wants to maintain a personal relationship with his customers. His goal this year is to sell more coffee by the cup than he did last year since he has already developed a strong fan base with the surrounding community, which typically buys for businesses.

He is also currently working on refining the shop’s interior, which includes a rotating selection of artwork from Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Espresso a Mano

Espresso a Mano in Lawrenceville is an espresso bar dedicated to serving sustainable coffee and providing a warm and inviting atmosphere for customers. Most of its beans come from independent sources that use fair-trade practices. Two such sources are Counter Culture Coffee, a roaster based in Durham, N.C., and the Commonplace Coffeehouse & Roastery, which is located in Indiana, Pa., but has a store in Squirrel Hill.

Espresso a Mano has a rotating selection of products as it focuses on serving coffee that is in season. The shop’s staff also makes sure to use the right brewing techniques to evoke the best flavor from the coffee.

“We have a high emphasis on really good coffee, but also on people. People always describe this place as kind of the ‘Cheers’ of coffee shops because we get to know our customers and pretty much everyone’s name and drink order. We like to have a relaxed feel to our shop. Plus, we are in Lawrenceville, which is a great neighborhood because of the variety of people that come here,” owner Matt Gebis said.

21st Street Coffee and Tea

Even during an off-day in the Strip District, a constant flow of customers grab a cup of coffe at the 21st Street Coffee and Tea. The shop is best known for its pour-over coffee, which it prepares by setting a grounds-filled filter cone into a cup and pouring hot water over it to steep. See our coffee guide for more information on this method.

“You have to start with a good product. Serving it fresh per-cup ensures that all the hard work we’ve done is getting to the customer,” said Alexis Shaffer, a co-owner of the cafe.

The shop focuses on keeping coffee simple and making sure the staff fulfills its customers’ needs. Employees are more than willing to give instructions and recommendations to best suit the customers.

“We try to show this to people — how they can do this at home. It’s very transparent. We also hold classes and coffee tastings. We are unique in that we care, and our main intent is to give something to the customer, something they enjoy. We want to make the customer happy,” Shaffer said.

These independent coffee shops are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to coffee in Pittsburgh. All of the shops in this feature provided recommendations of other similarly original shops, such as Tazza D’Oro in Highland Park, Voluto Coffee in Garfield and The Commonplace Coffeehouse & Roastery in Squirrel Hill. Independent coffee shops recognize that at the end of the day, coffee comes down to the customer and the quality, not just competition.


Brew, drip, press: What does it all mean? A guide to coffee preparation

There are many methods of brewing a cup of coffee. Here are two common ones that deviate from simple use of the standard electric-drip brewer.

The Pour-Over Brew: This brew uses the same basic technique as an electric-drip brewer, but the procedure is done by hand. This technique employs a conical filter. The beans should be ground finely, as this will expose more surface area of the beans and the coffee will have a more full-bodied taste.

The grounds are placed in the filter, and near-boiling water is poured slowly over the top. The coffee drips out of the bottom of the filter ready to drink.

This technique can be used to make either a single-serve cup or a whole pot of coffee.

The French Press: This method is often called the infusion method or the plunger method. A French press uses a plunger-like filtration system to brew coffee, and it is best to use coarsely-ground coffee for this method. More finely ground coffee will slip through the filtration system.

Coffee is placed at the bottom of the French press, with the filtration system placed on top of the grounds. Hot water, usually at a temperature a little below boiling, is poured over the coffee.

The coffee should be left to steep for several minutes before the plunger is slowly pushed to the bottom of the press.